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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning as the Summer Olympics get underway in Beijing, we go back to a different time and a different Olympics. Our story is about a young Jewish athlete from Los Angeles who is torn over whether he should play on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team.

The year was 1936; the Games were being held in Hitler's Germany, and the athlete was Sam Balter, grandfather of NPR reporter Carrie Kahn, who brings us this recollection.

CARRIE KAHN: Looking back, I guess I never really knew the details of my grandfather's journey to the 1936 Olympics. I swear I remember being told stories of him marching before Hitler and showing off his gold medal in a display of Jewish pride. But my grandfather's stories always had a way of getting bigger the more he told them.

Ms. BARBARA KAHN: He always made a story better. He always made his role better, but I don't think he lied.

KAHN: That's my mom, Barbara Kahn. She got the full story of my grandfather, her dad, when he was in his late 70s. He talked, she recorded.

Ms. KAHN: He was happy to do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: You had to get him to stop.

Ms. KAHN: Yes, okay.

KAHN: How did you get him to stop?

Ms. KAHN: I'd say, dad, we're done for the day. And I turned off the tape recorder.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

Ms. KAHN: This is March 9, 1986, and we're going to talk about the selection process for the Olympics and the Olympic Games.

KAHN: Over the hiss of the old cassette tapes, my grandfather can still command an audience. Patoo, as we called him, projects in his professorial tones...

(Soundbite of tape recording)

Mr. SAM BALTER (Olympic Medal Winner): I wouldn't pretend that I was one of the seven best basketball players in America. But the method of selection at that time somehow placed me on the team.

KAHN: Patoo was an unlikely pick, well under six feet tall and by his own admission more clever than fast. But basketball was still a young game. Patoo played in Southern California on a team sponsored by Universal Pictures. They made it to the Olympic qualifying round where the final match was played in Madison Square Garden. As he told it, the crowd was on its feet as Universal Pictures beat their longtime rivals, the Oilers of McPherson, Kansas. The score was 44-43.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

Mr. BALTER: And a reporter came up to me and singled me out. I couldn't figure how that was. I play the whole game but I wasn't the big star. And he asked me if I was going to go to the Olympics. I laughed. I says, why, of course, why not? He says, well, you know they're being held in Hitler's Germany. Big silence. I just never had given it a moment's thought.

KAHN: He quickly asked the reporter to strike his cavalier response and then spent three months agonizing over what to do. As a Jew, there were many groups urging him to take a stand against Hitler's Germany and boycott the games.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

Mr. BALTER: I was told by others it was absolutely imperative that I play on the team. I had earned the honor and more important than that, what kind of propaganda tool would we have if we played in Germany and there were no Jews on the American team?

KAHN: The American Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, assured the athletes that the games would be free of Nazi propaganda. Apparently that gave my grandfather the opening to pursue his once-in-a-lifetime chance to be an Olympian with a clear conscience.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Unidentified Man: Up goes the official flag on the liner Manhattan, carrying 334 athletes.

KAHN: In July 1936, he boarded that ship from New York to Germany.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Unidentified Man: And shove off. And America's biggest Olympic team in history is on its way. May good luck ride with them.

KAHN: But it wasn't long before Patoo said he was worried he had made a mistake. In spite of the promise that Hitler wouldn't use the games for his Nazi cause, my grandfather says there was no shortage of anti-Semitic propaganda.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

Mr. BALTER: You could buy it on any street corner, and I have a copy of it now. Hadn't you seen it? It's in one of my scrapbooks. It has caricatures of hooked-nosed people.

Ms. KAHN: So while you were there you were getting a picture of it?

Mr. BALTER: I saw that but I didn't see it as bad as - obviously as bad as it became later on.

KAHN: Politics aside, he remembers the thrill of meeting the founder of modern basketball, James Naismith. And he complained that the Germans didn't really understand basketball. They scheduled all the competitions on outdoor dirt courts. The final game - U.S. versus Canada - was played in a torrential rainstorm.

Mr. BALTER: If you dribbled, it was a splash and the ball floated away.

KAHN: At halftime the score was an unremarkable 15-4.

Mr. BALTER: And these two teams, supposedly consisting of the best players in the world, each scored four points, four points each in the entire second half.

KAHN: The Americans won the gold 19-8.

But what my grandfather left out is that he didn't play in that last game. The U.S. team actually consisted of two seven-men squads. It was the other team that played and won, not his.

Mr. BALTER: It wasn't our turn. It was the turn of the other group. And we didn't get medals until much later. So we had a lot of beefs.

Ms. KAHN: An inauspicious end.

Mr. BALTER: Yeah.

KAHN: I never heard that story until I listened to my mom's tapes. Patoo never marched in front of Hitler or got his gold medal on a podium in front of the world. It was mailed to his home months later in Los Angeles. His win was barely a footnote to the achievements of the legendary American runner Jesse Owens. But my mother says being part of the 1936 Olympics was the achievement of his life.

Mr. KAHN: I believe that probably is true because everything in his career flowed from the fact that he had gone to the Olympics.

KAHN: It helped launch his career as a successful Los Angeles sportscaster on radio and later on the new medium of television. He also wound up acting in several movies - always playing the sportscaster - as he did in "The Champion," starring Kirk Douglas.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Champion")

Mr. BALTER: (As Sportscaster) And that, ladies and gentlemen, as you probably guessed, was the champion entering the stadium. Just about everyone in this vast arena is on his feet.

KAHN: As he spoke to my mother, Patoo defended his decision to go to Berlin, despite all the pressure he received as a young Jewish American.

(Soundbite of tape recording)

Mr. BALTER: It's the dream of all sportsmen to make an Olympic team. You can do anything else in the world, but when they write your epitaph in the newspaper, write your obit, it's going to say an Olympic Games gold medal winner. I guess I was smart enough to know all that at the time.

Ms. KAHN: Okay. Let's stop there.

Mr. BALTER: Okay. Fine.

KAHN: My grandfather died eleven years after making these recordings - he was 88. And he was right about his obituary. In the first paragraph, the L.A. Times remembered him as a gold medal Olympian.

During his life, my grandfather filled 24 scrapbooks, mostly with newspaper clippings about himself. So I cut out that L.A. Times obit for him, covered it in plastic, and at his funeral I slipped it into his coffin.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: See Sam Balter in action plus a team photo at NPR.org.

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